Old tree with Sunshine

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Some years ago, I volunteered with an environmental non-profit organization. It wasn’t long before I was helping out with a couple of committees, one of which was in charge of communications and outreach. For non-profits, communication is vitally important, especially in relation to fundraising. You are asking people to give you money, but unlike a business, they don’t receive a product or service in exchange. What you’re really selling them is emotional, not tangible. In evaluating our communications and identifying what was good and what could be better, I discovered some best practices that relate to both non-profit and business communications. I’d like to explore those in more depth, using the non-profit example.

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Keep It Simple

Communications, whether they be email, webpage, or social media post, should be straightforward and stick to a single topic. It’s not that people can’t comprehend longer, more complicated text, but they get so much communication in a day that they simply don’t have the time and energy to read through it all to get to the point. For example, if you’re sharing a Saturday working event to remove invasive plants from the local park, don’t include a long explanation of which plants will be eradicated and why. Stick to where and when. Include a link to an educational article if you really need to provide more information, but don’t clutter up the event notification with that detail.

Find the Positive

Even if you need to tell people about bad stuff, it’s counter-productive to induce despair and helplessness. Hope is what motivates people to act. Hope empowers people. So instead of leading with “500 acres of coastal forest leased for clearcutting!” consider “Together we’ve successfully protected 1000 acres of old-growth forest. Let’s keep going!”

Tell People What You Need

Non-profit organizations rely on their members and community for financial and logistical support. Don’t hide your ask behind surveys, at the bottom of a newsletter, or as the last agenda item in a two-hour meeting. People actually LIKE getting involved if you make it easy, specific, and relevant, so don’t be afraid to ask. “Can you volunteer to plant trees at the community center on Saturday?” or “Can you contribute $5-25 to help us fund the educational outreach program?” are effective asks. “Volunteers needed” sounds too open-ended. “Please donate” is too generic.

Tell People What They're Getting

I’ve noticed that some non-profits do this exceptionally well. Heifer International has made it an art-form. People need to understand the impact of their contribution. Making a difference is why they got involved! If you’re fundraising, let people know how the money will be used. “We need to raise $3000 to build handrails on the Skyline hiking trail to make it safer and more accessible. Can you contribute $15 today?” If you’re asking for people’s time, even for mundane tasks, tie those to organizational goals and objectives. “Can you volunteer 2 hours a week to update our membership data so that we can keep our members informed and involved?”

Connect on a Human Level

Every politician knows you have to follow the stump speech with the handshakes and the eye contact. People need community and a sense of belonging. Some organizations can appear to be all about the long-term board members, founders, and high-dollar contributors, which can alienate the majority of the audience. Move the focus to your members and their profiles, contributions, and achievements. Remember that the board serves the members and the community, not the other way around!

Respect your Audience

Respect for your membership or audience is shown in many ways. Communicating clearly, respecting their time and their money, avoiding “dumbing down” topics, avoiding manipulative techniques, and not spamming your audience are good rules to follow. It’s also very important to ensure that your communications reflect the diversity of your audience and are free of bias. Don’t imply that wielding the chainsaw to clear deadfall on the trail is a man’s job, or that bringing sandwiches to the Wednesday social is a woman’s job! On the non-profit where I serve as a board member, we ALWAYS proofread each other’s posts and communications before they go out to ensure we haven’t made such a faux pas.

Repetition is Good

There’s a fine line between sufficient repetition and spam. But I’ve observed that just posting/sharing something once doesn’t get the job done. For an event or fundraiser posted on social media, expect to re-post at least three times to reach your audience. For events publicized via email, make sure to follow up with a reminder, especially to those who have signed up. People are busy; their calendars are full. You don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. “Reminder – Group hike this Sunday. Meet at the Smithfield trailhead at 10am. Coffee and donuts provided. Click here for a map and driving directions.”

No matter what kind of organization you are or what your goals are, connecting effectively with your audience takes planning, skill, and the right technology strategy. If you’re planning to implement or upgrade a CRM package to help you achieve your objectives, reach out with your questions and concerns. We’re here to help!

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